LifeWay to close bricks and mortar stores

News broke yesterday that LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention has decided to close all 170 of its bricks and mortar stores. Christianity Today has the story. The news comes after the publishers retail division posted another year of losses:

LifeWay hadn’t had sales exceed its operating expenses in more than a decade, Baptist Press reported, and the margin between the two grew from $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million in 2017.

It’s big news, mostly because LifeWay seemed (at least to casual observers) as though it was the one chain that might possibly weather the disruptive changes in book retail.

No one deserves to be treated this way

The truth is that all of us will need a little help along the pathway of life. It’s also true that some of us are fortunate to have families who can help. Others aren’t so fortunate so let’s have a little more compassion and give others the benefit of the doubt.

My path of healing

The almost two years since leaving full-time pastoral ministry have been a time of immense healing. It started with grief at what seemed like a failed call. And then mellowed into a sense of loss and periodic anger. And then, almost unlooked for, a calm peace began to settle deeply into me. I began to notice the hard edge that I had allowed to grow up around me as emotional armor became to soften. This truly is God’s gift and I am thankful for it. I feared that my soul had been permanently wounded in my last call, but God proved stronger.

A look of pure spite

It was in this heightened sensitivity that I stopped at the store this evening. I jumped into a line that looked short only to find myself behind a woman in some distress.

English was clearly not her first language, which sounded like it might be Polish or Ukrainian. She was attempting to pay for her grocery order with cash and also with an Illinois WIC card. Like many people she found herself at the check out with price tag higher than her cash and card. Unlike others she clearly was limited to a very precise amount.

She struggled with the cash. She fumbled with the card. I wouldn’t have known it as a WIC card (ignorance of such things is a clear sign of my fortunate personal history) except that the cashier loudly told her “you can’t pay for that with your FOOD STAMPS.”  And as she said it, she turned to me and rolled her eyes with a look of pure spite. I did my best to ignore that eye roll.

Raise your voice

In that moment I decided that should she (that is, the cashier) say anything to me about this other woman I would gently remind her that she might want to cut this other woman some slack. She didn’t so I didn’t.

What’s in a stare? 

I’m no arbiter of social exchanges and there’s a good chance that I read too much into all this.

All I know is that at the cash register I was sure of two things.

The first is that no one–regardless of their language, gender, nationality, or economic status–deserves to be embarrassed, shamed, or worse, abused in any way. 

The second is that those who are in pain (the cashier here) often inflict that pain on others. 

I don’t have any policy proposals, but I do know that we have to work to cultivate communities of compassion and social support networks that can help those who don’t have the same resources some of us have.

The truth is that all of us will need a little help along the pathway of life. It’s also true that some of us are fortunate to have families who can help. Others aren’t so fortunate so let’s have a little more compassion and give others the benefit of the doubt.

Greenway becomes president of SWBTS

I was excited to learn that Adam Greenway, my college friend, was appointed the ninth president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, TX.

Adam and I got to be friends through Samford University’s preaching program known as H-Day. Each week we’d travel to different parts of the state of Alabama to preach, often in rural churches. We also served together as officers of the Samford University Ministerial Alliance.

Adam is a man of integrity. He is the person before you. Ask him what he thinks, he’ll tell you. And ask him what he cares about and he’ll tell you that he cares about those who’ve never encountered Christ savingly.

Congratulations to Adam and to Southwestern!

Traditional sexuality is not a panacea

Fidelity to the historical teaching on human sexuality is not a silver bullet. We do the church as disservice by suggesting that fidelity here is the linchpin on which church growth depends.

Church growth works until it doesn’t

More than twenty years ago I sat with some British Christians in their living room and talked about church growth. They were leaders in the church I had grown up in–a small, building-less congregation affiliated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.

Since moving to the United States some five years before this conversation I had not only felt called into ministry, but had swallowed the pill of American confidence in the inevitable victory of the church over the pressures of culture. 

As we talked I recall saying “if a church is faithful in its ministry it will grow.” Even as the words left my lips I realized my immense hubris.

This was a church that had faithfully been preaching the gospel weekly for years and had neither a building nor had it grown very far beyond 100 attenders. It was ruled by a session and a part-time pastor was responsible for much of the teaching. In an instance I had called all of that into question. I was ashamed.

The recent Methodist decision

This conversation came to mind when I read of the decision of the United Methodist Church to affirm the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality and to continue to bar (in theory not in practice) non-celibate homosexuals from ordained ministry. Make no mistake, it was a good decision and I’m grateful for it. We must, however, guard our rhetoric around this matter lest it betray us further along the line.

Beyond the usual images of people waving rainbow flags in protest, I’ve also heard delegates from the majority world (and here in the USA) saying things like, “Christianity is growing in Africa. We affirm traditional marriage. That affirmation is part of the reason we’re growing.”

My own experience in Presbyterianism

In my own journey out of the PC(USA) into ECO I heard similar arguments. The PC(USA) is declining, we were told, because it has rejected the Bible’s teaching. Make no mistake, the PC(USA) did reject the Bible’s teaching on a variety of doctrines. I don’t dispute that.

What I dispute is that had they not rejected those doctrines they would be growing rather than shrinking.

The implication is, of course, that being conservative means that your church will grow and flourish. That isn’t necessarily true.

More, pursuing this line of argument will inevitably lead to disappointment should decline follow. It fails to recognize that orthodox Christianity is, once more, a minority report.

Don’t be a Bildad

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Evangelicals are in danger of echoing the pseudo-wisdom of Job’s conversation partner Bildad.[/inlinetweet] In concern and response to the terrible suffering that had overtaken Job, Bildad offered a defense of God that centered of His justice and implied that, whatever else, God would (almost automatically) reward those who remained faithful to Him.

Bildad queries, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 9.3).

Bildad draws a straight causal line between what is happening in Job’s life and the divine. The implied alternative is that either God is the cause of sin or Job (or his children) have sinned.

In truth God is not the cause of sin nor had Job sinned. 

The remedy, according Bildad, is to remain faithful. Then God will “rouse himself for you and restore you to your rightful place” (8.6). He continues, “Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great” (8.7).

And, later, “God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers. He will fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy” (8.21).

There’s so much about this that rings true.

Faithfulness is always the best course of action.

Fidelity is the perpetual right choice.

Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.

Doing the right thing has inherent value that is enjoyed apart from any possible additional benefit that might accrue to us by doing it.

Turning from sexual sin and trusting in God’s provision of grace in Christ has its own value. It not only saves us from God’s righteous anger against sin, it also frees us to pursue God himself.

Turning from sexual sin does not, however, mean that life will be a bunch of roses. In the case of the same sex attracted person, for example, the immense challenge and pain of unfulfilled longing must be deemed to be a shadow of the blessing of being united to Christ and to Christ’s body, the church.

Every time someone intimates that making the right choice on sexuality will lead to church growth, they make a profound mistake… about the nature of grace, the state of the world, and the nature of the church. And every time we do it we make it more likely that when real suffering does come for the church, we will not be sufficiently formed to be able to handle it.

In the face of our racism fly to the cross

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]In order to be gospel Christians we have to learn to hate any allegiance that attempts to eclipse our Lord or to diminish Christ’s church.[/inlinetweet]

The uncomfortable Jesus

Jesus was one for making remarkably discomforting statements.

Among them is this: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. . . . Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27; 33).

I can’t say I’ve preached on this verse or its parallels in the other gospels. 

It’s not too hard to guess why. Not only is it a verse to make the congregation awkward; it does the same to the preacher.

It calls for careful exposition in order to avoid the sloppy excesses of radicalism on the one hand and apathy on the other.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]What place then does this verse in the life of the believer and in the life of the church? The answer: a central place that must not be overshadowed.[/inlinetweet]

Jesus relativizes our allegiances

There is a significant body of research on how Jesus relatives allegiances that would have been immensely significant in the ancient world.

In other words,

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Jesus takes the most important relationships in the culture of his time and–without denying or diminishing them–shows that they are of only relative importance in relationship to our identity as members of the mystical body of Christ, the church.[/inlinetweet]

Father and mother? Wonderful.

Are you willing to renounce them, to abandon them, if they attempt to stand between you and Christ?

Brothers and sisters?

Great. Are you willing to turn your back on them if they attempt to keep you from following Christ?

There’s more…

Your own life?

Are you willing to turn from the life you once knew in order to follow Jesus?

Every baptized Christian has made an oath to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil.

To be truthful, we tend to echo St. Augustine’s prayer for continence at some future, unspecified date. We’ll start our diet, so to speak, after this last piece of cake.

How do we understand these verses?

Applying these verses to our lives is relatively straightforward (in discussing rather than doing) when we’re dealing with garden variety sins.

The problem is, however, that these particular words of Christ have no disclaimer limiting their scope to only those things ordinarily perceived to be sins by contemporary evangelical believers.

Would that they did; the list is getting shorter everyday.

No, the First Commandment demonstrates God’s insistence that we not displace Him: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The gods that displace God are simply idols. They are, in a matter of speaking, fake gods with now power to redeem or save us from our sins.

It has become trite to insist that the fish struggles to notice that it swims in water rather than something else. Yet, it is true.

Those who are, like me, white Christians have grown up–be it in the United States or Europe–not only as part of the majority culture, but as part of a culture “rigged”–again in a manner of speaking–to serve us at the price of exploiting others.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]

We are not used to placing race in the arena of things in which God is calling us to confess and repent.

Like the fish white Christians fail to easily perceive that the ecosystem in which we thrive is toxic for others.


Can white people be saved?

If Jesus is to be taken seriously, however, we cannot approach him in faith unless and until we are willing and enabled to see that have made our whiteness something of an idol.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Our whiteness stands astride the path of grace that leads us to the cross. We cannot come to Jesus without “hating” it. Unless and until we see our race as something we are willing to lay down at the cross then we (white people) cannot be saved[/inlinetweet]


This is not the social gospel

I am not willing nor am I able to make policy suggestions to the government on this matter. I will leave that others.

However, [inlinetweet prefix="" tweeter="" suffix=""]as a struggling disciple of Christ and a wretched sinner saved by grace, and as a teacher in Christ's church, I have no choice but to urge that we examine ourselves in this matter. [/inlinetweet]

And if the Holy Spirit and the Word of God convinct you, you must fly from sin and fly to the cross.

The church’s next move in the current crisis

What the church needs now

How will we respond to the current crisis of evangelical faith and practice?

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]The Christian churches need, more than anything else, to provide an authentic alternative to the contemporary status quo.[/inlinetweet] I’m not calling on American Christians to become Anglican, Orthodox, or even Presbyterian. I am calling on them–on us–to recover our sense peculiarity and different-ness from prevailing cultural norms.


Not a superficial difference

I’m not talking about the superficial difference that comes from a change in Christian tradition as if somehow becoming, for example, an Anglican is going to please God or make a difference in our culture although it may certainly do no harm (unless it is really the latest and cloaked version of the desire to be cool).

The kind of difference I’m talking about is not marked primarily by vestments, by latin words and phrases, or by a churchly calendar. It is, instead, a difference marked by an experiential encounter with the grace and glory of God–J. C. Ryle refers to it as a “habitual communion”–that produces a change far deeper than ecclesial practices. It creates the willingness to lose our lives for the glory of God and for the sake of the world.

The current crisis

If the Bible tells us anything it tells us that the people of God are pretty gifted at wandering from God. Whether its becoming comfortable in Egypt, making a golden calf, failing to enter the land of promise, choosing violence over trust in Gethsemane, doubting the resurrection, placing our faith in the law rather than in grace, copying the sexual mores of culture, we see all of it play out in the pages of the Scripture. What’s more the church’s misadventures didn’t end with the close of the canon.

As much as at any time since I’ve been alive, the churches of North America have lost our way. We seem to be grasping to preserve political influence at the cost of our deepest theological convictions. 

A parable

A line of four American Presidents stood together at the funeral of one of their number. Three of them actively recited the Apostles’ Creed. One of them refrained, standing close-mouthed at the end of the rank of leaders.

It’s a telling image.

This is a president effectively elected by evangelicals who, despite our trust, has repeatedly expressed his unbelief and hostility to the message of the gospel as well as his personal commitment to a way of life antithetical to it. In spite of all this he remains the closest association with a term–evangelical–derived from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news.”

It raises the legitimate questions. Have we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage? Do we even know who we are anymore?

We are, at best, deeply confused and confounded.

We have believed a lie

In a sermon for Holy Week the late John Webster warns us of the power of the original lie. Holy Week was, in Webster’s words, “the triumph of falsehood.” In the moment of choice when presented with truth, light, and life, they chose the lie.It was a lie first told in the Garden. Israel believed the lie and they did so a representatives of humanity. You have believed the lie and so have I.

Learning to tell the truth

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]We cannot be the church while we are beholden to the lie. And we will always be beholden to the lie unless and until Christ shines the light of his grace into our faces and removes the scales that have formed on our eyes.[/inlinetweet]

The Christian message is a truth-telling one. The truth we tell forth is the person of Jesus who is God. Webster writes,

[Christ] dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth. He shows up human falsehood in all its depravity.

In him there is a complete judgment, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death.

What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: ‘they perceived that he was speaking about them.’

Little Lent

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Advent is sometimes known as little Lent. Let’s look into the mirror this penitential season and ask God to show us how we’ve failed to live the truth.[/inlinetweet]


John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian(Lexham Press).

J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion. (Banner of Truth).

Beware the lie

I picked up a collection of the late John Webster’s sermons published by Lexham Press under the title Confronted by Grace (2015). The first sermon in the collection, entitled “The Lie of Self-Sufficiency,” is a Holy Week sermon on Matthew 21. It’s a powerful meditation. One section captured my imagination and quickened my heart:

  At the heart of the story of the passion, therefore, is the confrontation of truth and falsehood. Why does Christ die? Why is he suppressed, cast out and finally silenced by death? Because he speaks the truth. He dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth. He shows up human falsehood in all its depravity. And he does so, not as a relatively truthful human person, nor even as a prophet inspired to declare what is hidden, but as God himself. His words, his declaration of the truth, are God’s declaration. He is therefore truth in all its finality; truth unadorned, truth which interrupts and casts down every human lie, every obstacle to seeing reality as it is. In him there is a complete judgment, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death.
 What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: “they perceived that he was speaking about them. 

John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 6-7.

We have forgotten how to make critical distinctions

We have forgotten how to make critical distinctions in our reasoning

I recently sat with a friend and talked about mistakes we had almost made when we were younger. Youth–if you ask me–is synonymous with mistakes, yet this is something almost totally ignored in contemporary youth culture.

As I recounted a moment in which I made a good decision–yet a moment when a bad one was startlingly within reach–my friend responded, “it’s okay if you did [i.e., if you made the wrong decision].” I wanted to reply, “Actually no. It wouldn’t have been okay.” It might have been understandable. It might even have been justifiable. It could have been redeemed, but it would never have been okay.

That little work “okay” carried with it the (modern) human impulse to make a conversation partner feel better about himself and avoid the perception of a negative judgment. Here’s the thing though, “okay” also carries with it the possibility of cheap grace and shrouds a relatively clear scenario in an unnecessary moral opacity. Okay cannot carry the freight of moral decision-making and we shouldn’t ask it to.

Okay is not enoughTwo truths in tension

(1) Actions have contexts that inform them

Discerning conversations requires us to keep two truths in tension. The first is that some actions are morally wrong and cannot be other than that in the form in which we encounter them. Every moral action takes place in a context and the decision cannot be separated from the context in which it is made.

It is not wrong to kill a man who threatens your life. It is always wrong to kill a man who has done nothing others than stroll down the street. It is not wrong to sleep with a woman you meet in a bar if that woman is your wife. It is always wrong if she is not.

(2) God is greater than our moral choices

The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Put another way, we all regularly make choices that contravene God’s law. This is simply a fact of life. If God wanted us to live in a state where it is impossible to sin then God could usher in the new heavens and the new earth. For reasons known only to him–surely among them extending to us the chance to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9)–God has delayed inaugurating his full reign. We therefore have time to repent and time in which we must continue to wrestle against sin and temptation.

God is greater than our moral choices and therefore is able both to absorb them and to change them thereby producing something good in our lives. Redemption does not, however, remove the consequence of sin from our lived experience. Just as surgery often leaves us scarred our transgression of God’s law often leaves a mark. It is a mark that will one day be erased, but it is a mark nonetheless.

The way of wisdom

The way of wisdom holds these two truths in tension. The way of the fool rushes to “its okay” or “you’re damned.” The good news is that there is time. Time to realize that a wrong deed needn’t be the end of the story. Time to experience the love of God extended in surgical grace that may leave a scar. Either way, time is of the essence.







My chat with Bart Erhman

The importance of intellectual hospitality


Bart Ehrman wandered into the IVP Academic booth today.

Ten years ago the prospect of chatting to a scholar of Ehrman’s standing would have been overwhelming. I would have awkwardly asked if I could help him find a book or, better, looked at the carpet.

Two decades ago I would have felt awkward at having such a prominent critic of Christianity in my presence–was his lack of orthodox belief communicable?

As I’ve aged I’ve come to recognize that things are very rarely as they seem on the surface.

It’s not an absolute rule, but its at least true some of the time that those who doubt may be closer to the truth than those who parley the truth into a lucrative career in evangelicalism.

I’m not say this applies to Bart, but it may do and I have no way of knowing whether or not it does.

Christians must be generous to those with whom we disagree

If you’re not familiar with his body of work you really should be. Here’s how he’s described on wikipedia:

Bart Denton Ehrman (/bɑːrt ˈɜːrmən/; born October 5, 1955) is an American New Testament scholar focusing on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity. He has written and edited 30 books, including three college textbooks. He has also authored six New York Times bestsellers. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Educated in evangelical institutions (Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College) prior to graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman has become a public intellectual whose work is critical of the received tradition. 

He has been described as a terror to innocent evangelical undergraduates at UNC Chapel Hill. He tears at the shallow foundations of their received belief. His ‘radical’ and revisionist approach is part of his charm and much of his career. Iconoclasts always stand out.

At the same time he’s a nice guy.

We had a wonderful talk.

I mentioned that my wife is an Carolina alum and acquires in the area of Biblical studies. He asked when she graduated and how she got into publishing.

He seemed genuinely interested.

Then he said, “your [that is IVPs] academic books are your best ones.” It’s not a compliment precisely but it’s nice to know that he sees at least some marginal value in our publishing work.

It’s also not surprising that our books that posit Jesus as an object faith wouldn’t really be his thing.

By introducing myself to him and telling him that I value his work I wanted to extend a welcome to someone whose views are sharply different from my own.

The truth is, however, that without the challenge of scholar like Ehrman my own evangelical faith can easily become shallow and vapid, devoid of any serious intellectual content. One need only look at the best-selling Christian books to see this reality come to bear.